This was the standard response from friends and family when I told them I’m going to Tettegouche State Park on Minnesota’s North Shore, to spend the night in a type of snow shelter known in Athabaskan as a quinzhee. Although my family were avid yearly campers, I hadn’t spent a single night in the woods since college. The one cheap sleeping bag I owned might as well have the Little Mermaid on it.
My Boy Scout brother, though, apparently did this type of thing long ago, while my fellow Girl Scouts and I were busy sewing sit-upons so our delicate fannies wouldn’t touch the ground.
“What’s the temperature going to be?” he asks.
“A little below freezing,” I reply.
He shrugs. “You’ll survive.”
I also have help. Tettegouche interpretive naturalist Kurt Mead, who’s invited me to his annual winter camping workshop, e-mails me a packing list. It seems that with winter camping, cotton is the devil, so I spend a happy few hours unearthing my dad’s old Pendleton shirts, hoping they’ll provide ample protection from frostbite, hypothermia and bears — not to mention the packs of timberwolves recently spotted in the park, traveling along the frozen Baptism River.
But the night before the trip, when I crash at my grandparents’ place in Duluth, staring up at the ceiling, I remember that I like having blankets and a mattress and central heat. I don’t even like “Frozen.” Why am I doing this, again? The next morning, trekking up the ridge carved by the river alongside other newbies, everyone asks me the same thing.
Building a mini-quinzhee
There’s another problem. Mead looks at them — two groups of three — and me. I don’t want to create more work by insisting on a quinzhee just for me, nor do I relish the idea of cuddling up to three perfect strangers, friendly as they may be.
“How about if I make a smaller quinzhee?” I ask. “Less work.”
Mead agrees, and a couple who aren’t planning to spend the night serve as helpers.
“A quinzhee is not an igloo,” Mead explains. Igloos are made of bricks; a quinzhee is just a pile of snow. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to make. It takes us two hours of shoveling to force the snow into a lopsided pyramid. But Mead shakes his head: We need a dome.
So we use a plastic toboggan to hurl snow against the sides of the pile, as high up as our aching arms can reach. Sweat keeps us warm, but I get a chill up my spine if I stop for more than a few minutes. Finally, a dome forms. We let it harden in the sun as I tap at the frozen bottom of my water bottle. In the cold, it’s easy to forget you’re thirsty.
We then break sticks in half and poke them into the quinzhee so it resembles a porcupine’s hide; later, when hollowing it out, the sticks will signal where to stop shoveling to avoid a collapse.
By now, my helpers are exhausted. So am I, but unlike them, I’m stuck. The temperature is plummeting and I still have to decide whether to hollow out my quinzhee now or go snowshoeing to the frozen High Falls. Ever cautious, I choose to get to work.
“Always lean back,” Mead warns as I dig in. “Never forward. My friend’s wife broke her back when the snow caved in on her.”
I swallow and stick my head in the hole; it’s all that fits. As I scrape away loose snow, it counterproductively falls in a pile, refilling the hole. But soon, I can almost wriggle my entire body inside. This would be so much easier if I could sit up.
“Pretend you’re Michelangelo,” Mead suggests. “Shovel away everything that isn’t the quinzhee.”
When I emerge, panting, from my work of Renaissance art, Mead offers to take over the digging, but I know I have more in me. I jump back inside with a war cry, my shovel a blur, hacking snow away from the walls, the ceiling, the floor. Snow falls down on my face, filling my mouth, saturating my woolen mittens with the ancient smell of wet wool. I feel like I did when I was 6 years old, sledding, frolicking — before I started treating winter like a contagious disease. Mead loads up sled after sled of snow and tosses it aside. At last, the first stick appears. Ninety minutes later, it’s rosy behind the maple trees to the west, and I’m Queen Elsa, sitting in my domed crystal palace. I’ve made my quinzhee — now I have to lie in it.
“Are you sure you’re OK staying here alone?” Mead asks, which doesn’t exactly boost my confidence. “What kind of sleep system do you have?”
System? “Uh, a sleeping bag. And another sleeping bag.”
“I’ll get you a third,” he says. “And a pad. Remember, the cold ground is your enemy.” Maybe the Girl Scouts were on to something. “When you start to shiver, you’re already hypothermic. Also, your body gives off moisture as you sleep, so be sure to make a ventilation hole in the top.”
Mead also warns me it’ll be tough boiling water for my pack of noodles without a stove, and I didn’t buy any wood. So I invade the next quinzhee site over, where a group from Lutsen is keeping a fire. They don’t mind my interloping. One woman, who hiked the Appalachian Trail last year, reassures me: “You have to depend on the kindness of strangers.” Eventually I’m slurping my noodles like a champ.
But now I’m shivering. Hypothermic. The last thing I want to do right now is cozy up in a mound of snow. However, to my surprise, once I strip off my boots in my quinzhee and arrange my three sleeping bags and two pads — excuse me, my sleep system — I’m 100 times warmer than I was huddling around the fire. I burrow down like a mole, realizing that I should have made one last trip to the bathroom. But there’s no way I’m going out there again, so I wait for my body heat to combat the chill shooting up my spine. Then, I remember.
The ventilation hole. I grab one of the sticks and tunnel up through the roof of the quinzhee, numbing my bare hand, until it pokes through like a flag of surrender. I lie back, blanketed by a primeval silence — just me, myself and a single star blinking back through the hole. I can feel my body radiating moisture, melting the walls of my ice palace.
I close my eyes. When I open them eight hours later, sunlight flickers through.
Tettegouche State Park (near Silver Bay, Minn.) conducts an annual one-day introduction to winter camping. Overnighting in a quinzhee is optional. It’s part of a series called “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse — Survival Skills for the 21st Century.” The next one is tentatively scheduled for January 2018. Find out more from park naturalist Kurt Mead at 1-218-353-8809 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and check out dnr.state.mn.us/events for more workshops.
Claire Shefchik is a freelance travel writer who lives in Stillwater. She blogs at PrincessofPirates.com.